|Behind the scenes at DFA: Jonathan Galkin
RA's Michaelangelo Matos talks to the label manager behind the vaunted New York imprint.
DFA Records seemed like a skyrocket at first, but it's proven itself to be one of the most durable labels around—dance or otherwise. Founded by the original DFA production team of James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy and Jonathan Galkin, who runs the label's day-to-day operations, DFA Records went into business ten years ago, releasing its first 12-inches, The Rapture's House of Jealous Lovers and LCD Soundsystem's Losing My Edge / Beat Connection, in early 2002, and has been shifting shape, cannily and smartly, ever since.
The label has been leaving deep imprints all over the place ever since—what serious dance-music lover can imagine the last half-decade without the Carl Craig remix of Delia Gonzales & Gavin Russom's "Relevee," or Still Going's "Still Going Theme" and "Spaghetti Circus," or The Juan MacLean's "Happy House," or Hercules and Love Affair's "Blind" (original or Frankie Knuckles remix) or Walter Jones' "Living without Your Love," or Benoit & Sergio's "Principles / Everybody"? That's just the icing, and it leaves LCD Soundsystem out of the picture entirely, not to mention divots into indie rock (Yacht) and noise (Black Dice). There's a lot going on at DFA; it slides in easily next to Warp and Kompakt as a visionary label that has abundant room in its vision.
DFA's vision (not to mention its ears) belongs largely to Galkin, who befriended Murphy in 2001, when the latter had a DJ residency at the East Village's cozy Plant Bar, owned by Marcus Lambkin (AKA future DFA signee Shit Robot), where Luke Jenner of the Rapture sometimes tended bar. The deal was sealed when he heard an early version of "House of Jealous Lovers." "A lot of the music the Rapture came out of, to be totally honest, I wasn't that familiar with from my old job," Galkin says. "I'm a quick learner. I got it; I understood where everything was laid out on the North American map, what was happening where. I realized a lot of the sounds, going back and buying stuff, Six Finger Satellite—it started to make sense, the lines drawn."
Galkin's background is a part of the interview below, which took place at DFA Records' West Village offices—a small apartment with kitchen and shower that once served as Murphy's residence—in July. But we mostly focused on the inner workings of DFA, its history and its tea-cosy-friendly future.
Right now, what is DFA? Jonathan Galkin in a more innocent time.
Still more of a traditional record label than maybe it would appear. But I think that's in some ways where we're stuck in looking to reinvent ourselves. A lot of what we do is still very much part of being a traditional record label: single releases, full album releases, music videos, following a lot of the traditional routes.
What do you think that first appearance is?
Like it's some very organized subcultural movement, like in the way we A&R and release dance 12-inches. I think people have a hard time exactly understanding what it is. People maybe are overthinking.
Do you mean, people think it's a dance label and other people think it's not a dance label, and it's kind of both?
Yes. And also the amount of mystery, which I'm fine with, but it's so much less mystery than people would expect. It's like when people walk in the office—they're like "This?" They think it might be located inside this cavernous nightclub.
Clearly it's not: this is a cozy office. You said, "Stuck trying to reinvent yourselves"?
In some ways. There have been a lot of conversations between myself and James [Murphy] about what's next. The success we've had throwing events and parties—partnering with maybe certain corporate brands gives us access to cash. That's something we would want to focus more on.
Yeah, on a worldwide level. We've kept it special, in a way, by doing it sparingly. We haven't gone the route of some of our peers that did it in a way more uniform fashion, probably to our detriment ultimately. But Kitusné and Ed Banger are—almost more so—event, nightlife, club-night focused. When we do parties it feels more like a one-off.
Do you feel you can do that more now that LCD Soundsystem is out of the picture?
Yeah. James's availability makes a huge difference. For six years I heard "I don't have time" from him. Now he's saying, "Help me fill my time." Not that he really needs help. It's nice to have him available. He likes to throw parties. I'm not going to get a tremendous amount of help when it comes down to rolling up sleeves and figuring out a radio plot for specialty [radio] for the Rapture, and how to make it work at such-and-such station. It's not really what he wants to do. If it's simple as "I want to throw parties," I'll kind of take everything we've done.
It's you, Justin Miller, and an intern and then James pokes his head in, right?
When it comes to the record label, yes.
When James comes in with a barrel full of ideas he's come up with on tour and hasn't had a chance to give you, is it a barrage?
Is it everything from high to low? Overarching ideas? "Tweak this"?
Jokingly, there [are] certain things that get his attention way quicker. If it's really dry business stuff, he's not even into [it]. More traditional press and radio and marketing, stuff like that, he doesn't get too involved band-by-band. The overarching sort of events, parties, he's very into merchandise—we talk about coffee cups or t-shirt sizes or he'll want to do tea towels or something, he'll jump in.
It's always a funny test to see if he's paying attention: you send him an email and he'll send no [response] for days, and then you send him an email like, "What about a peach-colored espresso cup?" Twenty minutes later: "Great idea. What about this?" and it'll be three links to different styles of espresso cups, a four-ounce and a six-ounce. "What about saucers, is that a good idea? Can we make sure the packaging is nice? Should we get stickers for the box we put the cup in?" It gets really detailed, but nothing about the actual music, really. It's more about ancillary objects. He gets really excited.
Justin Miller told me that he designed two different DFA tote bags and that James nixed both—he's a perfectionist. Does all this merch talk dovetail with the kind of talks you have about how the music business is going to work from now on?
Yes. He does, he gets very excited about those things. Some of them are based on his ability to use his current position to bring people together, to get the attention of certain corporations, the funding, the partners that we didn't consider before. Now it's kind of like the sky's the limit; we can have access to anyone if we want to.
Your office doesn't say "DFA" on the door. How important is it that you remain anonymous in the neighborhood?
It is important to us, actually. We have enough weirdoes sneaking into the building without any signage on the door. The studio we like to be mysterious. James took some stuff down [from the website] because he wants it to be quiet. We used to get a lot of tourists, Europeans who'd want to drop off their demo, and they'd want to talk. It gets very awkward. You say thank you and move on.
It probably makes it worse in some sense that you're perceived as a hip label, because people take the rejection even more personally, in a way they wouldn't otherwise.
This is true. It breaks my heart, because people do take it personally. People who are quite well known take it very personally. I don't want to name any names. In the dance world, there are people who've been trying to get a record on DFA for a decade now. I've listened to everything and said, "This isn't right for us." There have been some incidents that have ended in that way. I said, "I'm a huge fan. But sometimes I have to stay a fan." That's OK. I'm a fan of so much music.
Did knowing the difference take you a long time to learn?
Yeah. But there's always a certain incident, or case, where no matter what I say it's going to go the wrong way—that person is so wound up about it.
You're not talking about the well-publicized time when James and Tim didn't call Janet Jackson back?
No—way more underground than that. A lot of times when you show initial enthusiasm—"Oh, this is fantastic"—or you hire them to do a remix, they send every single thing. It's hard enough doing what I do on a daily basis with the bands we have. That's why our 12-inch singles—there is rhyme and reason once you line it all up, but what we end up putting out is very strange. There is a kind of pinhole, and if it makes it through that process—I couldn't explain the process, really.
One thing DFA has done well for especially the last five years is slip the dance-rock tag.
Yeah. Which is funny, because it took us that long to lose it. We were running from it in some way. We'd embrace it with certain gestures, but then I'd be like, "Don't forget, the first album we ever released was [Black Dice's] Beaches & Canyons." I thought that made everything pretty clear upfront [laughs], but apparently it didn't.
Let's go back. What are you doing in New York in 2000?
I am working for a company called Empire Entertainment, a special events production company, putting on high-end corporate events. I'm a talent buyer. For chemical companies, pharmaceutical companies; it's post-tech-boom. I'd been there for eight years. It was the only job I'd ever had since I'd graduated from NYU in 1994. I met James through a mutual friend at NYU.
We met at Passerby Bar. He said, "I've got to go pick up my records. Come with me. I'll play you some of the stuff we've been working on. Come with me to Plant Bar and check out my DJ set." This is probably in spring of '01. We come here [and] he plays me "House of Jealous Lovers," he plays me "By the Time I Get to Venus" by the Juan MacLean, and that's it. But "House of Jealous Lovers"—it's pretty much finished. There's maybe one more mix, but it's pretty much the done version, the DFA 12-inch version.
I can't shake it. I just know in that moment—it sounds so corny, but I know this is one of those moments that could change everything. I was just a music fan at that point doing this job, and the more I thought about it in the following weeks, I got back in touch with James and went to see him DJ at Plant Bar, which sort of sealed the deal in my head. I saw what was going on—this sort of nonprofessional DJ scene. It was everything I knew, but it was put together, contextualized in such a way that I hadn't heard myself before, but it was something missing. As someone who didn't enjoy going to what were at the time the main-room clubs.
Centro-Fly was almost the left-field version of the Sound Factory. Obviously, that world didn't appeal to me. The Limelight didn't appeal to me. I'm not saying this stuff didn't exist more than I knew, but this was a door opening and me saying, "Oh, this is where the party is that I've been looking for."
Right around that time, in the back of, I think, Arlene's Grocery, somebody had left [a] copy of Vice magazine. Then [Vice] opened a store on Lafayette St. in 2001 right near my old office. I used to go and wait for the new issue. I'd never read anything like this magazine before. It was irreverent and touched on all these subcultures that I loved and mainstream cultures that I loved. It had really good journalism. It was funny. I was passing my issue to other people to read, and they were reading it cover-to-cover. From the minute I opened that magazine, I was like, "Holy shit, this wraps up a lot of stuff that's been floating around." When I went to Plant Bar, I remember seeing Suroosh [Alvi, one of the co-founders of Vice] there and knowing it all tied together. People introduced me. It just kind of clicked. By July or August 2001 I'd quit my job. September 1 we started DFA. [This has] always been the office. Before I got involved James was kind of living here.
"The creative process of getting remixes
done—to be totally honest, right now
there's probably nothing I enjoy less."
DFA Compilation #2 is where you guys really stepped out and became more than just a some big-thing-for-a-minute. Did you feel like that comp bought you some freedom?
It seemed to. In a way, that compilation seemed to wrap everything up in a way that people got it in one. It contextualized everything: you could finally sit down with a body of work that had amassed over the past three years and hear it all lined up. You could hear how a Delia & Gavin track sat next to a Pixeltan track. It was a pretty slim number of artists in total on that compilation, compared to this daunting task looming over us right now, trying to gather the long-overdue Compilation #3, which is probably going to be two compilations, because we have a ridiculous amount of material to choose from right now. But it'll be great when it happens. It's kind of haunting my dreams right now.
Compilation #2 was easier because we had [a smaller] repertoire to cherry-pick from. I feel like Comp #1 got rushed out in such a way that there's definitely some mistakes on that one, though Comp #1 was [for] getting "House of Jealous Lovers" and "Losing My Edge" out to a more mass public, and on that it succeeded.
There wasn't a lot of "This'll show 'em," answering people's skepticism, [about Compilation #2]. But it ended up being that way in hindsight. It wasn't until I went back and re-read some of the reviews that I went, "Oh, people really took it as this sort of moment where we managed to very succinctly summarize [the label's aesthetic]." The idea of putting out a compilation is fairly mundane. So something about that we really got right. It's good that it'll be a time-piece, a go-to of that era.
That comp starts with Black Leotard Front's "Casual Friday"—one of my favorite DFA records. How did that come in?
Through Delia and Gavin. Tim [Goldsworthy] worked on that. I feel like James tried some stuff on that track and it just didn't work. Tim did a lot of the drum programming. James definitely did some stuff on there, but Tim was in for more of the day-to-day. Tim had a good relationship with Gavin. And then Gavin brought in a few people from the art world that they were involved with. Christian Holstadt is somebody who's on that record—he should be in the credits, and this guy Daniel Schmidt, who has a gallery in Berlin.
It's definitely one of those 12-inches where it took over a month or maybe more to make. But nobody was charging them for downstairs; it's our studio. It was just this one perfect track that came out of there. It wasn't like, "We've done it!" It was just, "Hey, there's this new thing we're working on. Gavin's doing one with a disco drum." "OK, that's cool. Just use your time wisely."
At the time, Delia and Gavin's career as recording artists was secondary to being fine artists. They were represented by the Daniel Reich Gallery on Third St., which Bjorn from Black Dice is part of, and Christian Holstadt—just this whole sort of Brooklyn [art scene]. Delia and Gavin were a couple at that time. They did art together. They also did a lot of dance performances. "Casual Friday" was basically them making a song for them to dance to. Black Leotard Front—they wore leotards. Delia and Gavin did one ballet on an actual car, parked on [a] lawn. They built this plush-toy limousine made out of white spandex, but stitched, with doors and everything. It was 12 feet long. They did this song. It was part of their art. It wasn't meant to be...
A collaboration between Black Leotard Front and TEKO; Socle du Monde 2004.
Hearing about all the people involved, you can't help but think about early '80s New York, where so much of the post-punk and no wave was being made by fine artists. Is that a coincidence?
No, not at all. My obsessions, besides music, are fine art and film. I went to NYU film school. At the same time, where my first job was, I was a massive fan of all this music, and a massive fan of even indie and dance and I had older brothers—he's six years older than I am. I'm 39, so I had this older brother who was, maybe after I was 12, handing me acid house 12-inches even in '88. We were in Cleveland, and then we moved to Chicago in '86, so we had Wax Trax! Records. It was a very good time—you had Marshall Jefferson.
We were talking before [the interview] about the major label dance boom. I literally have a stack at home of 40 CDs I picked out that's, like, '88 to '92. I got them out for Gavin. He's working on a Crystal Ark album. We had this whole discussion of that whole era of major labels putting out dance albums. I did a similar thing with Hercules [and Love Affair]. I almost get into character, A&R'ing this record, I have a very good dialogue with a lot of the artists. Like Andy Butler or with Gavin, we'll start talking about, "Have you ever listened to To the Batmobile, Let's Go, the Todd Terry album? Or Masters at Work: The Album?" Both of which came out in '91.
I get into similar dialogues with singles. But with an album it's like, "If we're going to go down this road . . ." There are certain artists that turn in records pretty much done, and then there's the dialogue. Even Hercules—a lot of the songs he started recording, for me it was fine-tuning stuff. Sometimes artists record a slow song and are embarrassed by it, and it's like, "I'm gonna tell you right now, that's a great song." They need someone else to tell them that. They just want to know someone else is paying attention. There's nothing an artist wants more than to talk. They're all hyper-narcissistic. So if you can engage them in that narcissism, and also rolling out, finding those touchstones, those references, historically.
[Gavin] said, "I think the Crystal Ark could be a combination of," and he named all these different types of things. I said, "Have you heard Duck Rock? It's very much Malcolm McLaren being a tourist in New York and taking all these neighborhoods and smashing them together. It's a bit crass, but you have these moments, like 'Buffalo Gals,' that [are] just a perfect object. How do we get to something like that without being too self-conscious about it?" Because it's a trick: you can hear a band record a song and it maybe makes you cringe. How do you think about that but make your record?
"So I'm giving Carl
Craig notes—so weird."
How do you apply that to remixes you commission?
The creative process of getting remixes done—to be totally honest, right now there's probably nothing I enjoy less. The cause-and-effect of getting remixes done has just been bled dry from ten years of looking for them, and also over-remixing and being aware of, once the floodgates opened [with] digital. We're just as guilty of it: you go to iTunes and there's nine remixes.
A lot of kids now are ultra-purist on it: if there's more than one remix, it's bullshit.
I like that too. Everyone's a remixer. Because there's so much content needed—oh, we need the free remix for this website, and this magazine wants to do a cover-mount CD and wants some exclusive content, and we need a dubstep remix, and then they need a... it's just too much. Why are we trying to please all these [people]?
Still, remixes have helped define the label. One big transitional DFA record was Carl Craig's remix of Delia and Gavin's "Relevee," from 2006.
It's funny: at the time, we met with some skepticism by some people. But it was a lot of money for us at the time, and we weren't sure what the results would be. It was a huge risk. I remember getting the first draft of it from him and just being stunned. He asked for notes. So I'm giving Carl Craig notes—so weird. He sent me two different versions. He had a live piano player on it.
With Carl Craig, I knew that he was into Chris & Cosey. I could explain a few things about Delia & Gavin. As soon as he heard the record he was like, "This is my shit." He was making some not-dissimilar music on his own full-length records. Frankie Knuckles [who remixed Hercules and Love Affair's "Blind"] was also considered a huge risk. Not because he does shit work, but is he gonna get it? He's a main room remixer a lot of times. Chances are I'm not going to totally relate to his major label remix of Janet Jackson, even though I love Janet Jackson and I love Frankie Knuckles. So going to that guy for our indie leftfield disco record? He knocked it out of the park.
Published / Wednesday, 21 September 2011
Photo credits / Header - Daniel Boud
Black Leotard Front Performance - Anders Berg